Crossing the Bar Summary

Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is an 1889 poem about an imminent sea voyage that represents the transition from life to death.

  • As evening descends, the speaker feels called to the sea, and he hopes for calm conditions when he embarks.
  • A bell tolls the gathering darkness, and he wishes for no sadness when he departs.
  • He hopes to finally meet his Pilot when the tide carries him out beyond the bar.


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Last Updated on July 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605


"Crossing The Bar" is a four-stanza elegiac poem by the popular Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Written in 1889, it is generally found at the end of all editions of his poems, something which Tennyson requested specifically before his death. Tennyson died in 1892, and the poem discusses the speaker’s anticipation of his final journey in a reflective tone befitting an older man who knows he is coming to the end of his life. Using an extended nautical metaphor, the poem depicts the bar of a harbor as the line between life and death which the speaker must cross on his final journey out to sea.


In the first stanza of “Crossing the Bar,” the speaker identifies the coming of sunset and stars, which are accompanied by a “clear call” that he feels is beckoning him to embark on a journey. He hopes that there will be no “moaning of the bar” when he sets off on this seaward voyage. The bar refers to the sandbar that typically forms the boundary of a harbor, separating the sheltered waters within from the broader expanse of sea without. The phrase “moaning of the bar” is a reference to the terminology of British sailors and fishermen. Sandbars are described as “moaning” when there is turbulence or danger, so with this request, the speaker is asking for smooth sailing when he makes his departure.

In the second stanza, the speaker elaborates on this scene. Instead of a “moaning” bar, he wishes for a tide which is so minimal that it seems “asleep” even when it is moving. He wishes for a “full” tide that is silent and without “foam,” for he does not want to confront any difficult or tempestuous conditions on his travels. At this time, “that which” once emerged from “out the boundless deep” will return home. At one level, this may refer to a turning of the incoming tide, but it also may refer to the speaker himself. The suggestion, then, is that this journey will represent a return “home” for him, which emphasizes the fact that the sea and the journey are metaphorical. The speaker says that he is returning to the “boundless deep”; he will therefore not be going to a new and unknown place but will be embarking on an inevitable return to his origin.

In the third stanza, there is a subtle sense of time having progressed: “sunset” has become “twilight,” and an “evening bell” has sounded, marking the onset of the darkness of night. Thus, the speaker finds himself ever closer to the moment of his departure. He does not seem to fear the looming darkness or the voyage ahead. Indeed, he requests that there be “no sadness of farewell,” presumably from his loved ones, when he finally sets sail on his journey.

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker attempts to explain why he does not wish for there to be sadness at his departure. He says that although he will be taken out far away from the “bourne,” or boundary, of “Time and Place,” there will be something else to reward him when he finally crosses the bar that figuratively separates life from death. At this point, he hopes that he will finally see his “Pilot.” The suggestion here is that the speaker’s Pilot, God, has been directing his journey for the whole of his life, but he has never seen him “face to face.” When he crosses the metaphorical boundary between life and death and returns home to his source, he will be able to see this divine force which has been guiding him.

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